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Zanele Muholi 

Zanele Muholi 

Tate Modern (5 November 2020 – now extended to 6 June 2021)

Review by Andrew Bay

The unusual appeal of Zanele Muholi’s photographs derives from a distinctive creative process embedded in making the political and artistic statement of a visual activist. In a full retrospective of the artist’s career, the photographs in this exhibition mirror the daily lives of South Africa’s transgender and LGBTQIA communities. Muholi creates an open conversation between themselves and the individuals in the pictures, by directly centering the subject in the frame, usually in their immediate context – their home, their neighbourhood, their city. The participants, whom Muholi describes as collaborators, never disappear into the crowd. On the contrary, they are intentionally brought into the limelight, to the forefront of the picture. These are photographs of lovers, cross-dressers, people staring intently into the camera or captured in a moment of absent-minded intimacy. Muholi’s approach is strikingly effective, and the photographs produced are compelling. This exhibition, curated by Tate Modern, consolidates the impact of Muholi’s work across the span of a remarkable and award-winning career.

The setting for most of Muholi’s creative life has been the urban environment of Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa. The city contextualises a tension in Muholi’s work between the need for individual expression conveyed by its subjects and a society in which they are confronted by persistent intolerance and prejudice. Muholi’s art is at its best when overtly explicit, and when the subjects of the photographs expose their sexual identity unreservedly. Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, a photograph taken in 2007, depicts two girls who appear to be teenagers, in their underwear, with open smiles directed at a spot away from the camera, legs and hands locked in a tender embrace. Their posture suggests the elation of being in each other’s company, as well as the foreboding sense that they know they must hide from a disapproving world.

In 2012, Muholi began a series of strikingly revealing self-portraits called Hail the Dark Lioness. One work entitled Ntozakhe II pinpoints what made this project such a powerful experience. It is an attractive bust portrait of the artist, wearing a mane-like headwrap and gazing up into the distance. It exhibits a use of black and white photography and stylized composition that catches the eye as immediately as bright colours would do.

Other self-portraits, such as Bester I and Qiniso, The Sails evoke the religious imagery of a haloed Virgin Mary, with their emphasis on a variety of South African headdress compositions. Qiniso exhibits a stunning crown-like sculpture of afro combs passed through Muholi’s hair, and Bester uses the same decorative stylization with laundry pegs.

Through the lens of their unique artistic perspective, Zanele Muholi strives to reflect the stories of the South African queer and transgender communities who bravely put their lives at stake in choosing to fully embrace their identity. In these photographs, they are united by the profound message of hope, tolerance and solidarity which Muholi aims to convey to future generations of South Africans.